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Sunday, April 20, 2014

DVD Review: Picture Of Light

Picture Of Light is a strange documentary about the northern lights, about our perception of reality, and about the use of technology to somehow capture nature. It has a slow, deliberate approach, both in its narration and in the film overall, that is completely engrossing.

It opens with the crew testing camera equipment in a cold chamber to get ready to capture the northern lights – an interesting way to begin the film. But this film is about the making of the film as much as it is about the northern lights. We see the crew on the train heading north, and we are told in voice over: “We were escaping the electrical world, with fifty pounds of batteries in our bags.” Nice. And yes, there is a bit of a sense of humor to the whole project. The film asks us early on, “Is film a surrogate for the real experience?

For me, for now, it is. The northern lights are something I hope to experience firsthand at some point in my life. But this film does work as a surrogate, or at least a taste of the actual experience. It’s interesting too, because the filmmakers are both experiencing the lights firsthand, but also capturing the images and creating a surrogate.

This film is also about the details. There are close-up shots of details along the way, such as water dripping onto the railroad tracks. The water looks like darts shooting down (and in its own way as beautiful as the northern lights). There are lots of beautiful shots long before they even get to the northern lights. The seemingly simple shot of snow blowing across a road is gorgeous.

The crew shot this film on two visits to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. The voice over informs us that this is the home of the first-ever pre-fabricated building in North America. And we are treated to footage of life in the region, including the locals talking about the northern lights. The guy talking about hunting is at times very frightening.

But there is some strange behavior all around. While waiting for conditions to improve so they can get on with their filming, they decide to drill a hole in the motel room door to allow snow in, to see how a snow drift would be created in the room itself. And eventually a snow drift is created in the motel room, though the crew expresses disappointment in the style and look of the drift.

The lights themselves of course seem like magic, like dancing. And those images are allowed to play out, which is great. They do talk about how many frames they shot per minute and so on, so we can more of an idea of what we’re seeing. Plus, there is some footage of the lights as viewed from space, as they’re explained a bit more.

Bonus Material

The DVD includes a photo gallery - some black and white, some color. There is also a section on director Peter Mettler, which includes a biography, a filmography, and an article titled Paradox And Wonder: The Cinema Of Peter Mettler.

The Picture Of Light was directed by Petter Mettler and originally released in 1994. It was released on DVD on April 15, 2014 through First Run Features. Mettler’s new film, The End Of Time, was also released on that date.

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